Footnote to fabled story on Indira

An enduring lore in Indian politics was put under the microscope when Sitaram Yechury today told the Rajya Sabha that Indira Gandhi had declined to accept a comparison with Goddess Durga.

By Pheroze L. Vincent
  • Published 27.02.16
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Indira Gandhi 

New Delhi, Feb. 26: An enduring lore in Indian politics was put under the microscope when Sitaram Yechury today told the Rajya Sabha that Indira Gandhi had declined to accept a comparison with Goddess Durga.

"Let me remind them (the BJP) that Atal Bihari Vajpayee... after the Bangladesh war, called Indira Gandhi 'Ma Durga'. Mrs Gandhi refused to accept this title, saying that there are many Dalits and Bahujans who worship Mahishasura," Yechury, an MP as well as the CPM general secretary, told the House.

The CPM leader was challenged by HRD minister Smriti Irani who accused Yechury of insulting Durga worshippers. Finance minister Arun Jaitley asked Yechury to authenticate his statement. "She (Irani) is not coming out with fiction, you are," he said.

Asked later, Yechury told The Telegraph that he had referred to an essay by the former Janata Dal United MLC of Bihar, Prem Kumar Mani. Titled " Kiski Puja Kar Rahe Hain Bahujan (Who are the lower castes worshipping)?" the essay was first published in the Patna edition of the Hindi daily Dainik Hindustan in 2001 and reproduced in the Forward Press magazine in 2011.

"This has been out for so long. Why have they never objected to it so far?" Yechury asked.

Mani had written in the article: "I remember that in 1971, after the India-Pakistan war and the creation of Bangladesh, then Jana Sangh leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee called Mrs Gandhi an 'Abhinav Chandi Durga'. Communist leader S.A. Dange strongly protested saying, 'Atal Bihari does not know what he is saying and Indira Gandhi cannot understand what she is hearing. Both should know that Chandi Durga massacred Dalits and backward classes'.

"After Dange's intervention, Indira Gandhi said in Parliament, 'I am only Indira and I want to remain so'."

Mani told The Telegraph today: "I was a young student who had just finished school back then. I was a member of the CPI and we keenly followed everything our leaders said. In the party's Hindi weekly, Janshakti, this debate was published." He added: "Dange strongly believed in what he said. It is common lore that the skulls on Durga's necklace are those of Asuras."

Mani, a Dalit writer, has now left politics.

Mahishasura is worshipped by the Santals and Asurs of Jharkhand, Bihar and Bengal as well as the Gonds of central India who consider Mahishasura as an ancestor. In the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh and in Chhattisgarh, Mahishasura is worshipped as a protector of cattle. The city of Mysore in Karnataka is named after Mahishasura.

In a TV interview in 1996, Vajpayee denied ever calling Indira "Durga". "I kept denying it but the papers still carried it. When Pupul Jayakar was writing her book on Indira Gandhi, she asked me about it and I denied it. She searched all Parliament records but couldn't find the reference. But Durga is still chasing me."

Jayakar's biography of Indira was published in 1997. The author passed away the same year. In the book, Jayakar states that Indira was likened to Durga during the 1971 war, a statement that she does not attribute to anyone.